Independence you can trust
30 August 2014 16:18 (South Africa)
Opinionista David Gemmell

A proudly South African transplant

  • David Gemmell
This could be a modern fairy tale, except that it’s true. What makes it doubly inspiring is that it brought together protagonists from miles apart in a country obsessed with race, class, and language groups. Illness, however, is the great equaliser of people – it can strike anyone at any time, and when it does, you can’t choose who helps you find your miracle. 

PART I - SAMKELO

Eight months ago, when ten year-old Samkelo Mthetwa contracted cardiomyopathy, death loomed large for the frail young boy. Cardiomyopathy is the deterioration of the function of the heart muscle, inevitably leading to heart failure. 

The disease has a very low survival rate – with the patient’s best chance of pulling through being to undergo a heart transplant. With his only real opportunity of recovery based on a still unusual and radical medical procedure, Samkelo’s prognosis was dire.

On being diagnosed, the poor little mite was immediately hospitalised and the interminable wait for a suitable donor began. Day after day, his small frame battled with breathlessness and constantly swollen legs as his condition continued to deteriorate.

Life isn’t fair, and it certainly wasn’t making any exceptions in Samkelo’s case. Apart from his contraction of a terminal infection, his mother had been a victim of a serial killer and he never really knew her. The tiny chap had been left in the care of his grandmother. 

It wasn’t all bad luck, though. It later emerged that Samkelo’s granny happened to be a qualified nurse who fortunately spotted signs of his condition early. And, most fortuitously, his aunt added him to her medical aid just before he took ill.

For eight long months, the little fellow hung onto life by the slenderest thread. Then, early in October, a miracle occurred. Out of the blue, a donor became available; a match uncannily perfect in age, weight and height. Tragically for another family, there had been a car accident, which left their ten year-old boy brain dead.

PART II - MATT

Many years before, while on a school sports tour to Zimbabwe, sixteen-year-old Matt Moffett had contracted the same life-threatening condition that now affected Samkelo. Matt spent almost the whole of grade ten in hospital. As the disease took its toll and vital organs began to fail, the young man’s desperate father, John, pleaded with cardio-thoracic surgeon Robert Kleinloog, “Please do something… anything... Help him. Please, he is a good boy.”

The anguish of the family standing silently around Matt’s hospital bed that day was palpable. 

Just days before Christmas of that year, a suitable donor became available. However, in a horribly ironic twist, Matt was no longer a suitable recipient. After some intense debate it was finally decided that despite his unsuitable condition, they would go ahead and perform the transplant. The decision was attributed to his youth. 

In a wonderful vindication of the bold decision to give him a new heart, Matt returned to school in the New Year. With a fresh lease on life motivating him, he quickly caught up on missed studies, successfully completed his matric and did a degree in business science. He began swimming and impressively, representing South Africa in the Transplant Olympics and bringing home two gold medals. After a stint overseas, he eventually returned and joined his father in the family construction and plant hire business.

Years later, heart specialist Robert Kleinloog was contacted by a grateful John Moffett. John had never forgotten how the surgeon had saved his son’s life, and offered him the use of their company’s new Pilatus jet.

“You are welcome to it for your transplant work. Whenever you need it, it’s all yours,”  he said. They just didn’t know how soon it would be required.

PART III - MIRACLE

When a donor is found, location, logistics and precise timing are crucial to the success of a transplant. 

Just two weeks after the Moffetts made their jet available, notification of a suitable donor for Samkelo was received. The Moffets’ jet was immediately despatched to pick up Robert Kleinloog’s medical team. It took them to harvest the donor heart and then waited on standby to return the precious cargo to Durban as quickly as possible.

Finally, at the end of a very long Saturday, at the Ethekwini Hospital and Heart Centre, the operation was all done and dusted – a reminder of just how much has changed in South Africa, if not for everybody, at least in life-changing ways for some.

There, at a hospital owned by a black economic empowerment firm, harvested from a tragically prematurely dead white child, expeditiously delivered by dint of an English father’s eternal gratitude, skilfully transplanted by an Afrikaner surgeon and monitored by an Indian paediatrician and a white cardiologist, a healthy heart robustly beat inside a murdered black woman’s young son. DM

  • David Gemmell
gemmell opinionista 02

David grew up in the Free State, where his father worked on the gold mines. He has variously been a barman, labourer, truck driver, roughneck, trader, project manager and is now a full time writer.

He has had a column in Business Day and the now demised Weekender. David has an unusual talent for making people open up to him, which he later turns into a gripping read. He gained nationwide fame after he completed the biography of Joost van der Westhuizen, Joost: The Man in the Mirror. He has recently completed a biography on Father Stan Brennan, Colour Blind Faith.


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